One look at `Gentleman's' and Holm quickly agreed

April 27, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Celeste Holm thought the guy sitting a few feet from her at the Brown Derby was just putting on airs. But in reality, he was getting ready to make her an immortal of the silver screen.

"There was a man across from me who obviously wanted the world to think he was a writer," the actress says over the phone from Los Angeles. "He was wearing a jacket and a scarf and a three-day beard. I looked at him, he looked up at me and said, `Celeste.' I said, `Moss.' It was Moss Hart. Not only did he want the audiences of the world to think he was a writer, but he was writer, and a hell of a writer."

Hart was working on an adaptation of Laura Z. Hobson's novel "Gentleman's Agreement," about a New York magazine writer who pretends to be Jewish so he can experience (and write about) the effects of prejudice.

"Without any preamble at all, [Hart] said, have you read `Gentleman's Agreement'? I said I'd never heard of it. He said, `I'll send it to you tomorrow morning.' It arrived at 9 o'clock, at noon I called him, I said, `Yep, I'll take any part.' He said Anne Detrie. I said, `Oh, yes.' "

The decision worked out well for all concerned. Her performance earned Holm a best supporting actress Oscar for 1947. It also helped "Gentleman's Agreement," a sweeping indictment of anti-Semitism at a time most of Hollywood strove to avoid controversy, win Academy Awards for best picture and best director (Elia Kazan).

The actress, who turns 80 this week, will be in Baltimore today for a screening of the film, which closes out this year's Jewish Film Festival. Although its message may seem obvious today, "Gentleman's Agreement" was daring for its time. It was a huge -- and unexpected -- commercial and critical success.

"It was well-written, and it was so perceptive, which is what you hope all writing will be," Holm recalls of what would be only her third film after coming to Hollywood in 1945 after a stage career in which she originated the role of Ado Annie in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!"

Holm, who today has a recurring role on the CBS series "Promised Land," believes the message of "Gentleman's Agreement" is simple but still very much relevant. "Hatred is a very dangerous thing," she says. "Just look at [the shootings in] Colorado. I think it's more important than ever.

"It's just the same old thing," she says, "treat others the way you want to be treated yourself, that's all. That works every time."

"Gentleman's Agreement," which co-stars Gregory Peck, John Garfield and Dorothy McGuire, screens at 7: 30 tonight at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave. in Owings Mills. Tickets are $12. Call 410-542-4900, ext. 239.

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